Frankly Speaking: Saudi Sports Minister on efforts to make the kingdom more athletic, and a destination for global competitions

14/12/20

Frankly Speaking host Frank Kane speaks to Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Sports HRH Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal. (AN Photo)
  • Contribution of sports industry to local GDP grew from SAR2.4 in 2016 to SAR6.5 billion in 2019, says Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal
  • Vice President of Olympic Committee says Saudi Arabia welcomes all athletes to sporting events, even from countries with no diplomatic ties

RIYADH: In a wide-ranging interview for the latest episode of Frankly Speaking, Saudi Arabia’s Minster of Sports, HRH Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal spoke to Arab News’s Frank Kane on the challenges and opportunities of turning the kingdom into a sporting nation, and a destination for international sporting events.

The minister also stressed the positive and influential contribution of the industry to the wellbeing in Saudi society through its inclusion of women and contributions to the country’s GDP.

Answering a question on what the kingdom can do more to prove the repeated western media accusations of “sports washing” wrong, Prince Abdulaziz explained that hosting international sporting events is a part of Vision 2030’s wide ranging strategy that aims first and foremost to benefit Saudi Arabia.

“Call it whatever you want to call it, but this (vision 2030) is a strategy that has been launched, that is ongoing, that is changing social life within the Kingdom,” he said during the interview.

“We’ve seen the first tourist visa happening because of a Formula E event that happened in 2018 which launched which became a tourist visa.”

As for the economical impact of sports, which as per HRH is an integral part of Vision 2030, he said “contribution to the GDP in 2016 was SAR2.4 billion ($640 billion), today it is SAR6.5 billion ($1.7 billion) in 2019”

And as for social impact of athleticism, Prince Abdulaziz said that “All of our programs today that we do in the ministry of sports and the Federation is all about diversity and inclusion.”

“They’re [Women] finding support also from the the players and their families. Things are changing and things are changing to the positive and we have to make sure that it changes in the right way.”

https://www.arabnews.com/node/1776701/sport

Prince Abdulaziz also stressed on separation sports from politics. When asked about if Saudi Arabia will participate in Qatar’s 2022 World Cup if it (the kingdom) qualifies, he said: “Our national team goes there and their national team comes here so that’s not going to be an issue hurting our performance.”

The minister’s comments were echoed by the Vice President of the Olympic Committee Prince Fahad bin Jalawi bin Abdulaziz, who spoke separately in Riyadh with Arab News Assistant Editor-in-Chief Noor Nugali about Saudi Arabia’s bid and efforts to host the 2030 Asian Games.

When asked if the kingdom would welcome athletes from countries it has no diplomatic ties with, Prince Fahad said: “we already hosted a lot of international events and Asian events and there are participants from countries we don’t have diplomatic relations with. We’re talking about sports and sport people are welcome to come to Saudi Arabia in any event.”

Watch the full episode here:

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Adwa Al-Arifi, undersecretary of planning and development at the Ministry of Sports

21/11/20

Adwa Al-Arifi

Adwa Al-Arifi has recently been  appointed as undersecretary of planning and development at the Ministry of Sports.
She attended Al-Yamamah University in Riyadh, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2011. As an undergraduate student, Al-Arifi founded the Al-Yamamah Female Football Club in 2007 and acted as president of the university’s student council.
In 2008, she founded the Riyadh Female Football Committee, with the aim of developing regulations and rules for football leagues, management and planning, as well as training and referee workshops.
Al-Arifi started her journey with Saudi Fransi Capital in 2012 as part of an asset management rotation program for fresh graduates and was recruited a year later as a portfolio officer in that department. Between 2014 and 2016, she served as a fund manager, building up her expertise in the stock exchange and in asset relativity across different markets.
Halfway through 2016, she consulted for Portas Consulting, where she focused on project analysis and strategy implementation in Saudi Arabia’s sports scene. In 2019, Al-Arifi joined the Ministry of Sports as an investment director.
Having accumulated 10 years of experience in the Saudi football scene, she is making history with her accomplishments in the Kingdom’s sports sector.
Al-Arifi was nominated to become a member of the Saudi Olympics Council by the Saudi Olympic Committee. In December 2019, she became a board member.
Earlier that same year, she was the first Saudi woman appointed to the Saudi Football Federation, joining a seven-member committee.

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Dr. Razan Baker, chairperson of the International Bowling Federation’s (IBF) Women in Sport Committee

16/11/20

Dr. Razan Baker of Saudi Arabia has been appointed chairperson of the International Bowling Federation’s (IBF) Women in Sport Committee by IBF President Sheikh Talal Mohammed Al-Sabah.
Baker currently serves on the Saudi Bowling Federation (SBF) board. She is also director of international communications for the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee.
Growing up in a family of sports enthusiasts, Baker followed her dream of becoming a sports columnist for Arab News. Noticing the limited number of sports role models for young women in Saudi Arabia, she embarked on an initiative to support Saudi women bowlers. With the support and guidance of President of the SBF Bader Al-Alshaikh, she is working to further develop women’s sporting skills so that they may play at the international level.
A breakthrough in this initiative came in 2019 when, for the first time in Saudi sports history, the SBF sent a women’s team to compete at the World Bowling Women’s Championships in Las Vegas. Baker served as the team manager. Over the past two years, the SBF has more than quadrupled its athlete membership, an achievement realized through the outstanding work that the federation has done to support women in sports.
Sheikh Talal said: “Baker has been a big part of this success and therefore her appointment to lead the IBF’s Women in Sport Committee was not a difficult decision. I and the IBF executive board look forward to working with her in the future to champion our female athletes to the next level.”
Baker will lead a team of committee members in establishing strategies that advocate for the increased participation of female athletes in bowling and in leadership positions within the IBF and its member federations.

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Bubbles as Saudi Arabia holds its first women’s golf tournament

09/11/20

Players will be kept entertained by a bowling alley and gyms at their hotels. (Supplied)

More than 1,500 coronavirus tests to be carried out during the events
JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia is welcoming back international live sports with safe zones as it prepares to hold its first professional women’s golf tournament.

“Bubbles” and a biosecure environment at King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) will be in place throughout the elite-level European Ladies Tour golf tournaments that are starting from next week.

The $1 million Aramco Saudi Ladies International, presented by the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, runs between Nov. 12-15, while the $500,000 Saudi Ladies Team International takes place between Nov. 17-19.

The bubbles will be home to between 500 and 600 people across three weeks, and the tournament will see more than 1,500 COVID-19 tests conducted, including at least three each for the events’ 110 players. There will also be testing for caddies and tournament staff.

Ladies European Tour players, event staff and personnel will have COVID-19 tests upon arrival in KAEC, before being permitted to enter the safe zones ahead of the tournament, where they will be in hotels for the event duration.

These measures have been implemented to ensure the health and safety of everyone, with all aspects of player and staff safety watched over by independent specialists who are experts in risk assessment and COVID-19 best practices. They include Dr. Andrew Murray, key adviser to Sport England and a technical advisor to the World
Health Organization.

There will be daily symptom checking on everyone within the bubbles, with contingency plans in place.

Majed Al-Sorour, CEO of Golf Saudi and the Saudi Golf Federation, said: “We have been building a safe and secure zone to bring back international sports to the Kingdom while adhering to COVID-19 precautionary measures. The area is designed to ensure that we can provide a secure environment to host Ladies European Tour golfers, but also protect the wider community. The landmark event will allow us to showcase that Saudi Arabia is ready to once again host major global events, while also developing the great game of golf and inspiring the next generation of young Saudis and Saudi golfers.”

The tournament is at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, which has been adapted to suit COVID-19 precautionary measures and will be sanitized throughout the run-up and duration of both events.

A 2-meter physical distance must be maintained at all times, with players and caddies the exception to this rule.

Away from the golf course, players will be kept entertained by a bowling alley, games room, cinema screen, gyms and swimming pools at their hotels.

Both tournaments will attract many of the world’s best golfers, with the Saudi Ladies Team International set to be the first time in women’s golf history that professionals — themselves competing in the Kingdom for the first time — will partner with amateurs in a points-earning Tour event.

The tournament marks the return of major international sporting events to the Kingdom, with the country aiming to inspire the next generation under the Saudi Vision 2030 reform plan.

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Women’s football league to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s sports ecosystem, says SFA president

Time: 06 November 2020

Prince Khaled said that the SFA shared the sentiment of the active and health-driven segment of society about the WFL. (Supplied)
  • The SFA president views WFL as a step closer to fulfilling the SFA’s goal of getting 40 percent of society to become active by 2030

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s first Women’s Football League (WFL) will play an important role in Sports for All Federation’s (SFA) goal of integrating women into the Kingdom’s sports scene, said SFA President, Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud.

With preparations underway after the conclusion of registrations on Sept. 30, Prince Khaled told Arab News about the SFA’s expectations and hopes for the tournament.

“The WFL gives women the opportunity of sport upskilling, which we see as a very important part of strengthening our healthy and active community and the country’s sports ecosystem as a whole,” he said.

The SFA president views WFL as a step closer to fulfilling the SFA’s goal of getting 40 percent of society to become active by 2030. “What else can they (audiences) expect? Good, strong, fair games played by our athletes from all over the Kingdom,” he said.

Prince Khaled said that the SFA shared the sentiment of the active and health-driven segment of society about the WFL.

“Excitement, pride, and a sense of accomplishment — the public is already invested in seeing women and girls live healthy and active lives through participation in all types of sports,” he said.

Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud

“People across Saudi want to see everyone included in sports, regardless of age or capability or being female or male. Championships for any sport and any athletic pursuit is a great morale builder for the public as a whole, and is an inspirational thing to see.”

As for the SFA’s expectations of the first women’s football league, Prince Khaled said that when women joined the league they were “advocating for others to join,” as well as promoting wellness, health, fitness, inclusivity and building achievements.

The WFL has been closely supported by the Ministry of Sports, the SFA president said. He also credited those working under the Quality of Life program for their support. “The team at Quality of Life really do want to see each and every woman in Saudi be given the opportunity to pursue their passions for sports and wellness as part of our collective work toward making Vision 2030 a reality,” he said.

The Quality of Life program aims to increase the public’s participation in sports, and for them to contend in professional events regionally and globally, and create entertainment opportunities that cater to their needs by 2030.

Meanwhile, many popular women’s football teams are expected to participate in the league, including Jeddah Eagles, Miraas and Kings United.

The WFL was announced in February, but faced delays due to the pandemic. A date is yet to be announced.

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Saudi Arabia to host Formula 1 race in 2021

Time: 06 November 2020

Minister of Sport Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, Formula 1 Group CEO Chase Carey and the chairman of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Faisal pose for a photo. (Supplied)
  • Prestige event puts Kingdom in driving seat as global sports center, minister says
  • Prince Abdul Aziz: Welcome to Formula 1 and welcome to the champions

LONDON: Saudi Arabia announced on Thursday that it will host a Formula 1 Grand Prix in its Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah in November, 2021.

Announcing the race in a ceremony on the Jeddah waterfront, Minister of Sport Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal said that the high-profile event will increase tourist numbers to the Kingdom.

“Welcome to Formula 1 and welcome to the champions,” Prince Abdul Aziz said.

He said that the race will help the Kingdom become a center for international sporting events.

“We realize the extent to which the people of Saudi Arabia are keen to always be at the center of the most important sporting and international events, especially that this is the first opportunity to follow Formula 1 races on Saudi land,” the minister said.

“Formula 1 races will be a great opportunity in the future to further promote positive developments in society, provide more options to enrich the life of our community and encourage it to test new experiences,” Prince Abdul Aziz added.

The race will be held in the Kingdom as part of a 15-year partnership between the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation and Formula 1.

The Jeddah Corniche will be the start and end point of the race, and a variety of recreational and cultural events will add to spectators’ enjoyment.

Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Faisal, chairman of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, said that the Kingdom is well qualified to host events such as the Formula 1 race.

Saudi Arabia has “learned a lot from hosting the Dakar Rally, the electric Formula E series,” and other sporting events during the past two years, he said.

The CEO and executive chairman of the Formula 1 Group, Chase Carey, welcomed the announcement.

“Saudi Arabia is growing tremendously to become a major center for sport in the world, and this is evident through the many international events it had held in past years, and now it will host one of the Formula 1 tours,” Carey said.

He said the Kingdom “is a very important region for us,” adding that about 70 percent of the Saudi population is under 30.

“That is why we are excited to communicate and interact with them, and enhance their great passion for Formula 1,” the CEO added.

The Saudi Grand Prix appears on the provisional F1 calendar for 2021 that has been distributed to race teams. It is expected to be the penultimate race of the 2021 season, which will end with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circuit.

Jeddah will host the Saudi race until a new purpose-built track at Qiddiyah is completed in 2023.

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Saudi female footballers excited about the upcoming league

Time: 13 October 2020  

Hala Mansouri says she has been playing football since childhood. (Supplied)

Amal Gimie
  • Players of other nationalities may not be participating but that has not dampened their enthusiasm

JEDDAH: As women across the Kingdom pursue their athletic dreams, including football, the No.1 sport in the country, anticipation for the Saudi Women’s Football League (WFL) is building.

The Saudi Sports Federation first announced the launch of the WFL in February, but it was postponed with the onset of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
The wait has been long, but Saudi footballers have been training throughout the lockdown period.
Coach Bireen Sadagah told Arab News: “Jeddah Eagles (one of teams selected to play in the WFL) have been practicing very hard in preparation for the league on and off the field, in terms of enhancing our fitness and strengthening our football mentally.”
She added: “The lockdown did not stop us from wanting to improve ourselves. We continued training in our homes as best as we could with the space and equipment available. Workouts and football drills were sent to us. Then as soon as it was acceptable, regular training was resumed three times a week, as well as individual work for recovery and strengthening.”
Hala Mansouri, a 22-year-old Saudi senior advertising student, has been playing football since she was 6, while living in West Virginia in the US, where she joined the World Alliance of the YMCA and fell in love with the game.
Returning to the Kingdom years later, she played on and off but always knew she had a knack for it, and joined Jeddah Eagles as a goalkeeper as soon as the lockdown was lifted.
“I used to play soccer and basketball when I was living in the US, depending on the season, but I just loved playing soccer more when I moved back to Jeddah,” she told Arab News.
Explaining what makes being a goalkeeper different, she said it was not as hard as playing other positions, but the difference was that goalkeepers see the whole field, must keep a close eye on the ball, and concentrate while keeping their cool.

“We can speak to our teammates so they can know where to go but the difference is we have different training; they run more than us goalies. I use my whole body to block a ball and strikers are more terrified if they missed or not. As a goalie, my only worry is if the ball passed the goal line,” Mansouri added.
Although goalkeepers are sometimes the under-loved players, she said, training was still rigorous, long and essential. “Goalies are the last line of defense in football.”
The young athlete said that football provided her with a liberating feeling away from everyday distractions. “While in a game, I don’t think of anything; everything is muted and it’s just a break for a while. It’s the best feeling.
“I’m honestly very proud that women found a lot of support in pursuing their dreams in sports and our families can be proud of us for doing so,” she said. “It’s a good feeling, even though we’re a bit later than other countries, but at least we got to where we are now for women and I couldn’t be more proud.”
So far, only Saudi citizens will be allowed to play, but that has not dampened enthusiasm from other female footballers in the Kingdom.
Yemeni-Saudi 24-year-old marketer, Shahad Saif, who plays for Jeddah’s Miraas FC as left-back, said she had played the game with her family in Jeddah since she was 10.
“I have been playing football since I was a kid with my family and brothers. I didn’t get the opportunity to play with an all-women’s group. So when I grew up, I used to rent a field and play football with random girls who love the sport and play without coaches and no specific requirements to play or prepare anything,” she told Arab News.
Football has always been an important part of her life, and it influenced all her habits and decisions. “Finding a community for this was very important, the only thing we could do back then was go to the gym.”

Shahad Said plays for Jeddah’s Miraas FC. (Supplied)

Miraas was established in Jeddah a year ago, and the left-back was one of the founders. “We provided everything that’s needed for girls to play soccer.”
Sharing the same sentiment, Amal Gimie, 26, an Eritrean midfielder for Jeddah’s Kings United, has been playing soccer since she was eight years old. Although she will not be participating either, that will not stop her from pursuing her passion and bettering her skills.
“There was a match every weekend, the boys made us play as goalkeepers in the beginning, and in 2002, when I first saw the Women’s World Cup, it sparked my passion to learn more about this sport,” Gimie, who is also a management information systems graduate, told Arab News. She joined her first female football team “Challenge” in Riyadh in 2014.
“It was the first time I joined something organized. I was happy to be playing but at the same time, I felt like it was an unreachable goal (to become a professional athlete or join an official league) I felt like I was growing older without achieving anything,” she added.
The midfielder said the rules of football have influenced her character.
“I’m someone who needs passion to live. I can’t live without having a goal. Since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be a soccer player,” she said. “There has always been a drive to pursue and achieve something. Soccer has changed my personality in determination, and to learn and this was a dream that I wasn’t sure it would ever come true but I had the determination to continue. And socially, I learned a lot about teamwork and how to maintain relationships with people.” Kings United coach Elham Al-Amri told Arab News that women, both athletes and coaches and anyone interested in the game, had finally been given the opportunity to show their love for the game.
“What’s even more exciting is the participation of Kings United players to represent the Saudi League,” she said. “We at Kings United offered our players the right set of techniques and teachings to increase their chances of participating in the league.”

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Saudi megaproject NEOM to build world’s smartest city

Time: 13 October 2020  

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sport signed an MoU with NEOM to help it become a global destination for sporting activities. (SPA)
  • The NEOM CEO said the cooperation with the Sports Ministry aims to create a vibrant environment to attract global talent from around the world

RIYADH: Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal and NEOM CEO Nazmi Al-Nasr signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) at the ministry’s headquarters in Riyadh on Monday.
The ministry will cooperate with NEOM to help the world’s smartest city become a global destination for various physical and electronic sports.
The sports minister vowed to continue the development of the sports industry in the Kingdom. He said the Kingdom is working relentlessly to ensure a sustainable environment for athletes.
The NEOM CEO said the cooperation with the Sports Ministry aims to create a vibrant environment to attract global talent from around the world.
He said investments in the sports sector are growing significantly in the Kingdom.
“The memorandum will allow exploring all possible opportunities and building sports entities that will help empower the Saudi youth and NEOM resident,” he said.

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For climbing enthusiast, Saudi Arabia offers up a wealth of options

Time: 15 September 2020

  • It is more of a sport which is learned from other people and through experience

JEDDAH: Fear has held many people back from enjoying even the simplest activities with friends and family such as swimming, going to theme parks and many more.

Nasser Al-Zuhufi, a 29-year-old Saudi, told Arab News he had always been a scared anxious child and fear hindered him from joining in the fun with the rest of his friends and family members.

He decided to break away from his fears unconventionally. He picked up the adrenaline pumping sports rock climbing.

“For as long as I could remember, I was always scared of everything, literally everything. Cats, the mountainous road driving to Taif, speed and rollercoasters. They were unexplained fears. There were no reasons behind them.

“Growing up, this feeling bothered me so much, that I’m holding this much fear. I even adjusted my life to suit my fears, like when I’d go to the theme park, I’d only go to the arcade, not the rollercoasters.”

One day, he decided to face his fears one by one and rode his first rollercoaster at 24 when he was studying in the US.

“It was the first time I felt like I faced a fear. I decided I’ll try it and there’s no going back no matter how I feel. After that, I felt this amazing empowering feeling, it was so liberating. I never felt an adrenaline rush before. That 5-minute experience changed my life.”

His first rock-climbing experience outdoors was in Al-Shafa, a village in Makkah in the summer of 2019.

“The first time I climbed, I feared the height of the rock. I felt like I was going too high too fast and I had to take it very slow to get used to it at the moment. The fear was not overwhelming and it all went away when I reached the end of the route,” he said.

Al-Zuhufi’s most difficult climb was in Lebanon, and he said it was both physically and emotionally stressful. He highlighted the importance of trust between climbers and belayers.

Zaki Kazmi has trained many people for various levels of climbing. (Photo/Supplied)

“Physical because the route was very high so it drained my muscles by the time I got to the hardest point in the route, and emotional because the whole area was new to me, I was climbing with people that I had met for the first time so I did not spend enough climbing time with them to build the trust needed between the climber and belayer.”  “And I never finished that route,” he added.

Saudi-based couple from Pakistan 30-year-old civil engineer Zaki Kazmi and 24-year-old biologist Arshia Zahra Akhtar created an Instagram page (@ our_monkey_business) that documented their rock-climbing adventures in the Kingdom.

The couple said the climbing community is small in general and particularly in the Kingdom, however, it is now rapidly growing.

“It is more of a sport which is learned from each other and through experience. Thus, we always welcomed and supported new climbers. For 8 years in Saudi, I have already trained many people for various levels of climbing, especially outdoors. My wife has also served as a trainer for indoor climbing at a local ladies’ gym, Riyadh,” Kazmi told Arab News.

“We welcome and are available to guide anyone who is interested in the sport or just wants to try the experience,” he added.

Kazmi said he enjoyed climbing in Tanomah, a small town in the south, between Baha and Abha. “I call it the “Yosemite of Saudi Arabia”. I first climbed there in 2016 before it was completely developed by the Saudi Climbing Foundation.”

“The supportive community, dynamic landscape and the rapid development of new climbing places should position Saudi Arabia in one of the top adventure travel destinations.”

He said rock climbing is therapeutic and a chance to connect with nature, away from city distractions.

“Rock climbing is a sport which is nearest to nature. It gives climbers a chance to get away from the city lights and hustle-bustle and get their dose of weekly meditation. It is not just a sport of physical exertion, but also mental strength. A person can strengthen their mental and physical health with continuous climbing therapy.”

Akhtar is currently pursuing her MD/Ph.D. in the US and continues to rock climb there. She said the Kingdom has ideal rock climbing spots and the Saudi climbing community is extremely supportive and welcoming.

“I have climbed in Massachusetts and Texas in the US, while studying here, and I can say Saudi Arabia does have quality rock climbing locations. The country has endless potential and so many places are yet to be explored, so it is definitely a hidden gem,” she told Arab News.

“The Saudi climbing community is extremely supportive and welcoming, along with the availability of a vast range of climbing and bouldering routes. So if you are an adrenaline junkie, looking for new climbing routes and are down to explore untouched places; you need to climb in Saudi,” she added.

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Saudi club Al-Hilal impresses with social media success

11/09/20

Al-Hilal after winning a record-equaling third Asian Champions League title in November last year in Saitama, Japan. (Files/AFP)

LONDON: When Al-Hilal became Asian champions for the third time last November, they joined Pohang Steelers of South Korea as the most successful teams in the continent’s history. When it comes to social media however, it is clear who is No. 1 in Asia.

With 9 million followers on Twitter, Al-Hilal are head and shoulders above the rest and have 150 times more followers than Pohang. It is not just about Asia; Al-Hilal rank alongside the biggest clubs in the world on the platform and surpass the likes of European giants Bayern Munich and Juventus.

Other leading teams in the Saudi Pro League are also far ahead of continental counterparts, with Al-Ittihad close to 4 million and Al-Nassr near 3 million. Some of Asia’s biggest clubs, such as Urawa Reds of Japan with their 400,000 followers, can only dream of such figures. Only Indonesian giants can come close, with Persija Jakarta at 2.9 million followers on Twitter and Persib Bandung at 3.3 million.

In 2019, the Saudi league was ranked as the third-highest league in the world in terms of fan interaction on social media. Tweets about the league reached 80 million from 40 million accounts, surpassing the Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue One. Only the English Premier League and La Liga had higher rates of engagement.

How have Saudi clubs done it? That is a question that people are starting to ask around Asia. One reason is the sheer numbers on Twitter. “It has always been by far the most popular social media platform in Saudi Arabia,” said Wael Jabir, founder and CEO of Ahdaaf, a Dubai-based football digital content company. “In fact, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest percentages of population on the platform worldwide.”

Jabir noted that Al-Hilal have improved their quality of late but believes that these clubs gain a major advantage from the size of their fanbases. “I’d even argue that the top four Saudi clubs are not even the best in the league in terms of social media content quality, but their popularity is such that above average content gets massive engagement.”

FASTFACT

Al-Hilal and other Saudi teams are not going to rival the likes of Barcelona in terms of global profile, but they can raise their standing across the world.

That engagement leads to a higher quality social media presence, however, as fans and clubs interact.

“If we take a look on Al-Hilal’s social media platforms, we will see how most of their content is football-related,” Xavi Bove, sports marketing consultant, said. “Lineups, results, goals celebrations or post-game photographs are predominant in their feed. The club publishes original content regarding players’ birthdays or families.” The Spaniard believes that more behind-the-scenes or fan-generated content would improve the product further. “Such strategies have been very useful for clubs like FC Barcelona.”

Al-Hilal and other Saudi teams are not going to rival the likes of Barcelona in terms of global profile, but they can raise their standing across the world.

“Leveraging Saudi fan passion across the digital landscape together with the expansion to international markets through the signing of foreign players and more content beyond football can surely boost Saudi teams’ exposure in global markets,” Bove said. “A conscious exercise of branding and storytelling will become crucial to create more interest and trust both locally but especially globally, since football is shifting toward the industry of entertainment rather than sport. And, of course, success on the pitch is always important to attract fans and followers, as we tend to seek brands that genuinely inspire us.”

Bove added that signing big stars from countries such as Brazil helps increase awareness, but Kim Myung-won, a Seoul-based social media and communications expert, believes Asia should be a first port of call, especially as nations such as South Korea and Japan have a lot to learn from Saudi teams.

“Just follow the posts ahead of a game. A map of the world is posted with all the different times listed, which fans in different countries can watch,” said Myung-won. “It is simple but effective in showing that the club sees itself as an inclusive international brand. It is a call to action, too.”

Video content is also hugely important. Myung-won pointed to Al-Nassr’s welcome of South Korean international defender Kim Jin-su, who was signed at the end of August.

The video opened overlooking the megacity of Seoul with Jin-su packing his bags in a hotel room and telling fans of his new club how much the move meant to him.

“It was simply but beautifully done,” said Myung-won. “It showed a little of Jin-su and his homeland and immediately brought the player closer to fans. Signing a left-back from South Korea is not going to get fans too excited, but this video makes a difference.”

For too long, Myung-won says, the rest of Asia have either not known of the social media success of Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and other teams in Saudi Arabia, or have not cared. That should change.

“Clubs here in Korea and Japan think that they can learn only from Europe, but officials should be flying to Saudi Arabia,” said Myung-won.

This article was first published in Arab News

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